From the S&S archives: Stars and Stripes interview: Dustin Hoffman
April 18, 1983
"Am I impressed with myself?
"There are moments where I like 'Tootsie,' '(Midnight) Cowboy' and 'The Graduate.' I'm not saying that I don't like them. It's just that I've never done anything where I thought, 'That's it ..."
For emphasis, Dustin Hoffman punches a fist into an open hand, and then he begins to shift in his chair, restless once again. He crosses his legs and draws closer. His eyes widen, telegraphing excitement, urgency.
"You know," he says, "once I talked to (Mikhail) Baryshnikov — you know, Jessica Lange's boyfriend. I asked him, 'Am I crazy? My work drives me crazy. You're one of the greatest dancers. Have you ever done anything where you thought, `That's it'?"
Crazy? No. Baryshnikov didn't think so. He understood. He had, he said, only experienced two, maybe three fleeting moments where; in the height of dance, he captured what was for him the essence of expression.
"So I felt, 'Well, there are other people who feel that way.'"
But Hoffman wants more than just a moment. He wants an eternity of those moments. He has appeared in 15 films in which, he says, he has had only a few moments. He has been awarded an Oscar for a full performance, not just a moment, for his role as a father/husband confronted with an unexpected divorce in "Kramer vs. Kramer." He received his fifth Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in "Tootsie" this year.
"I feel so relieved this time," the 45-year-old actor says sitting in Tokyo's Imperial Hotel three days before. the Academy Awards. "I: feel certain 'Gandhi' is going to sweep it.
"It's a relief because .I can just go and enjoy it and I don't have to sit there and ..."
He is fluent in body language. Teeth clench. Eyes narrow into crowfeet. He grabs his stomach.
"I'm saying that now;" he says, snapping out of character. "I'll probably get there and ..." He laughs. "I feel relieved not to worry:"
Hoffman is the loving workaholic family man in "Kramer Vs. Kramer," too wrapped up in his work to see the lives around him. "The Graduate's" Benjamin makes an appearance. Disillusioned with the values associated with his life, he still plays the game but finds himself wrestling with the need to break away. The curt, hard-nosed reporter in "All The President's Men" shows through. He'll stop at nothing to get what he wants. The :answer: The truth.
"My wife told me she will always remember me in 'Papillon,' Hoffman says. "The part where I come out with the pigs
"I'm afraid I'm going to wind up like that."
He laughs at the picture that flashes across the mind: a prisoner, condemned to Devil's Island; a Myopic, pinched-faced man whose hermitic soul finds a measure of joy in taking loving care of his only companions.
"It's hard not to be sad," Hoffman says. "There are people who have to work less hard at being happy, I have to do things to be happy."
The character in "Papillon" had his pigs. Hoffman has his work — and jogging. And he talks about it with the same passion that some people reserve for discussions on the meaning of life.
"I didn't run this morning," he says, "and I feel lousy.
"'When I. get done jogging, there's nothing that's going to bring me down that day. I have a hunch humans are constructed to break sweat. I don't mean artificially, by sitting in a sauna. If you can break sweat, it changes your day."
His mind, however, is ever running — one thought chasing another. His gestures — throwing up his arms like an Italian uncle — are a show in themselves. His fingernails are bitten almost to the cuticle. His words stumble over one another in a rush to get out of his mouth.
He is better, he says, than he was before.
"My work was more than my mistress when I was in my 30s. My work was more important than my health," he says.
There was that time in 1965 when he was scheduled to replace Martin Sheen in the Pulitzer Prize Broadway play "The Subject was Roses." The night before the first rehearsal, he suffered severe hand, arm, leg and chest burns in a kitchen fire at a girlfriend's house. He refused treatment and went through with rehearsals. Eight days later he collapsed and was taken to the hospital where he almost lost his life.
"If I had to choose a great movie and give up five years of my life I think I would have hesitated," he says. "Now I feel differently. I still want to do good work, but — I remember once — It hit me one day when I was going in the house and there was this nest above the door and someone pointed it out and said, .Look!'"
"I said 'Oh yeah,' and kept on going.
"This person: said, 'How can you not be so interested?'
"I said, `Well, I have work on my mind.'
"And this person said, 'If you had, to shoot that nest with birds in it for a scene and had to look at two hours of footage of the nest with birds in it you'd :look for two hours and couldn't get enough.'"
There was a world beyond the scope of a camera lens, and he was missing it.
"You — you. realize you can only enjoy life if you're somehow with your work," Hoffman says. But; as he says with a laugh, he's getting better. "My tendency; still; if I take my kid out to the park or something, I have to take a camera along. To sit and enjoy my kid I have to shoot it," says the twice-married father of four. "It's almost like a disease.
"There's a fear in back of it. Because if you don't record it — it forces you to realize that life is death. The moment has passed.
"You see this beautiful moment of the child," he says, outlining the frame of a moment with his hand. "Then it's dead.
"As good a feeling as it gives you, it frightens you. If you can record it, it somehow takes the pain away."
A photograph is like the imprint of a star in the night sky. The star may be dead, but the light is there, after having traveled the expanse of the universe. In the same way, Hoffman wants to affect people — the way Charlie Chaplin did in "Modern Times."
"That I see as great work," Hoffman says. "I was on the floor, literally. It's like that. You see a movie that so devastates you, it's imprinted.
"I'm thinking when I'm working, 'I don't want someone to just enjoy this, I want it to be imprinted on them," he says. "You don't always get that but that's what I'm shooting for.
"If the audience is going to laugh, I don't want them to just laugh. I want them to laugh until they're falling off the chair.
"Not that I get that," he says, more to himself :
"I get sick to my stomach if I feel I'm doing bad work."
Death, he says, is "people who don't care about their work." By his definition, then, Hollywood is filled with stiffs
"The industry itself is a business," he says "It's kind of a bad business. It's a bad business in the sense that it's supposed to to take your money. It's not necessarily to do good work.
"It's used cars.
"There's a part of that aspect of Hollywood mentality that's part of human mentality. That I don't like is the desire not to do as good as you can.
"But to say, 'They'll never know the difference.
"But this scene's not working right."
"Oh, they'll never know the difference."
"They is always the public," Hoffman says. "So in a sense they're saying, 'Screw the public.'
"Oh they'll never know the difference."
"That's my Achilles heel."
For all that Hoffman has achieved, and all that he is trying to achieve — in his life and in the movies, he doesn't think Dustin Hoffman will be remembered.
"I'm not fatalistic," he says. "Acutally, I'm kind of realistic.
"If you look, you'll see there are really really great actors that people don't care about these days. Someone like Paul: Muni and Charles Laughton.
"Six, eight, 10 great roles. I don't think it means anything," he says. "People that tend to live today are ones on TV. If the Marx Brothers and Lucille Ball weren't shown on TV on old shows, people wouldn't watch them."
Will you be remembered?
"I don't think so. I think a few years if I'm lucky," he says.
"It's a dismaying thought to me. It's not because of myself ...
"It's a deathist culture," he insists. "Americans have a very short memory about anything. About anything.
"I mean, don't you think that's true?
"Who remembers anybody? What does Jack Kennedy mean to a 20 year old? Nothing. "Am I going to be remembered? I mean, who remembers?
"I don't even fantasize. I don't even want to be remembered:
"Really, it's like George Bernard Shaw's phrase about 'Why did you waste it on the young?
"It'd be nice if you could start life as an old man because by the time you understand the quality of life, you don't have the quality of your body.
"I'm afraid if I'm lucky enough to live to be an old man I'll say 'Why did it take so long? Why did I blow it'?"